Building a chain of kindness

The following is the story of a young woman who was diagnosed with cancer when she was a teenager. It recounts her journey and the profound impact cancer has had on her life. Today, as this remarkable young adult continues to battle the disease, she invites everyone to help her build a Chain of Kindness in support of VOBOC, a Montreal based charity that has helped her and so many other teens and young adults with cancer. 

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I am Laura Loebenberg. I am 20 years old and I am honored to be the spokesperson for VOBOC’s annual fundraiser, the Treasure Hunt for Life.

Five years ago, I was your typical 15-year old teenager: innocent, carefree, naïve, and of course, invincible. I was in grade 9 earning straight “A’s”. I played piano, something I took up at the age of three. I had won several science fairs and public speaking competitions. My dream was to become a surgeon.

The headaches started in November 2009. For three long months, my doctor dismissed my complaints, “Headaches are common in high-achieving students, you’re too stressed, it’s just PMS,” he said. One day in March 2010, I went blind. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was proof something was wrong, very wrong.

We headed to the hospital and within a few hours, night fell upon my life. I clearly remember the doctor’s grim expression as he said in a shaky voice, “I’m afraid the results are not excellent.” I held my breath and tried not to cry. He continued, “The scan reveals a brain tumor.” Warm tears flowed down my face. It was surreal. In that moment, my world imploded.

A rare tumor the size of a baseball had invaded my brain. Surgery was needed to remove it. As they wheeled me to the operating room, I said goodbye to my parents terrified I’d never see them again. I was only a child. No one prepares you for this type of experience.

Surgery number one

The surgery was long and difficult. I suffered a stroke. My hearing, eyesight, motor functions and memory were all heavily impacted by the tumor removal. It was only when I returned home, that I realized how much everything had changed. My life was shattered. I felt a complete loss of control. I was never able to return to school. The recovery process was arduous. Prior to the illness, I earned straight A’s with little effort; now I struggled to simply read a few sentences. A once independent, motivated and proud teen, I was now dependent, vulnerable and hopeless. I had to work twice as hard to accomplish half as much. My goals of graduating medical school and becoming a surgeon were replaced by more mundane objectives like being able to walk around the block, read a page of a book, and being autonomous in everyday tasks.

Nothing prepared me for what came next: surgery two and three

A few months later, I was in shock when a scan revealed the cancer was back. I needed emergency surgery. Right afterwards, I started aggressive, high-dose radiation therapy. My long black hair that draped down to my waist started to fall out. It was traumatic to look in the mirror and not recognize myself. The new normal consisted of living from one MRI (brain scan) to the next. I was in a state of constant fear, sadness and despair.

In July 2013, I couldn’t believe my ears when my surgeon said he needed to go back in and operate again. Shortly after, I started chemotherapy. A few months later, the chemo proved ineffective so I enrolled in a clinical trial and started taking experimental medication. A month later, my body betrayed me again. The new drug wasn’t working.

Surgery number four

A fourth surgery in 2014 was my only option, followed by another round of aggressive radiation therapy and two types of chemotherapy.

In the last five years, I have been poked, prodded, x-rayed, radiated, dosed with chemo therapy, cut open and much, much more. I now battle an array of symptoms including discomfort, pain and physical limitations. Every day is a huge struggle, both physically and emotionally.

Being diagnosed with cancer when you are a teenager is one of the most isolating experiences one can imagine. My extended family lives in Israel. Most of my friends have moved on with their lives. Many no longer call, text or visit me. My few remaining friends are in their first relationships, shopping for prom dresses, gossiping about boys and parties. Meanwhile, I am learning new words like resection, pathology and malignancy and writing “craniotomy surgery” in my calendar.

VOBOC breaks the isolation

Cancer stops your life. In 2009, when my entire world went into a tailspin, I was in desperate need for supportive services. This is when I came across VOBOC. I sent an email to Doreen Edward, the founder of the charity that has been supporting Montreal adolescents and young adults with cancer for 14 years. Our conversation marked a turning point in my life. Doreen spoke to me with so much love, kindness and compassion. A few days later, a member of the VOBOC team, arrived at my doorstep with a Vo-Pak, a backpack filled with a resource kit with information about the cancer journey and how to access supportive services, a comfort kit filled with self-care items to ease my treatments and hospital stays along with a venturing out kit of gift certificates to my favorite restaurant and store and even a makeup session!

When I was hospitalized during the holiday season, I received a huge gift basket from VOBOC that helped brighten things up during that difficult time. Over the years, VOBOC has provided me with constant support, resources, tools, and diversions and connected me with peer support and other groups that organize retreats and events that improve the wellbeing of teens and young adults with cancer.

I truly appreciate that VOBOC’s team has always been by my side. The caring members of VOBOC are my allies. They constantly follow up to see how I am and care for me no matter the circumstances. Thanks to VOBOC, I never feel alone.

I can never repay VOBOC for what they’ve done for me. I admire them and am inspired by them. I have met many other patients who have been supported by VOBOC too and I also make a point of introducing other young cancer patients to the charity so they can benefit from all the wonders it has to offer. My goal is to make sure other young cancer patients like me, never feel alone again!

A Chain of Kindness

Let’s create a Chain of Kindness. VOBOC has given so much to me and to so many of my friends. Now, I ask you to add a link to our Chain of Kindness. Please support VOBOC’s upcoming fundraiser, the Treasure Hunt for Life by participating in the event, making a donation, volunteering and spreading the word. Let’s continue to add more and more links so our Chain of Kindness never ends. Please don’t forget – VOBOC does not exist without your financial support!

To support me and my family who are participating in VOBOC’s Treasure Hunt for Life on May 23, please go to our Team COURAGE FOR LIFE fundraising page on Canada Helps at: www.bit.ly/courageforlife

Team Courage for Life – DONATE NOW!

Thank you,
Laura Loebenberg

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To learn more and to participate in VOBOC’s Treasure Hunt for Life go to http://voboc.org or for additional information please call VOBOC at 514-695-9292.

Laura Loebenberg